What Role Will Automation Play in the Future of the Supply Chain?

Manufacturing and the supply chain are facing significant changes. The implementation of AI and automation is shaping supply chain processes all over the world; it’s no longer a faraway dream only thought about in terms of the distant future; it’s here today.

More and more roles that would typically have been assigned to human workers are fast being replaced with automated processes to make the jobs faster, more efficient and eliminating the need for people to be put in dangerous working conditions. But don’t think that automation reduces human effort and removes them entirely from warehouse floors. On the contrary, many technologies that are being implemented into the supply chain are already working alongside human workers, creating new disciplines and skills sets.

Automation is certainly set to change the supply chain as we know it. Here are the supply chain issues that automation could help resolve.

Common Problems in the Supply Chain

Customer Demands
You may have already heard of something called the Amazon effect. This phenomenon is named for the global retail giant Amazon, and how this one company has completely shifted consumer expectations.

With quick and accurate delivery unrivalled by most other companies, Amazon has singlehandedly raised customer expectations to levels that some smaller businesses have been unable to cope with. Rising expectations means that companies must improve their manufacturing and supply chain processes to meet these ever-growing demands, or face being forced out of business by competitors who are able to rise to the challenge.

Physical Limitations
Certain roles within a warehouse are much better suited to robots than human workers. Work which requires heavy lifting or working in dangerous conditions all have drawbacks of potential injury to workers which would negatively impact the company at large.
Robots don’t slow down, they don’t get injured or make mistakes that could put themselves or others in danger, and they don’t get sick. Specific roles lend themselves to being automated so human workers can take over safer roles that robots don’t yet have sophisticated enough software or dexterity to complete.
Human Error

People make mistakes; this is an inevitable part of life. But when it comes to manufacturing and the supply chain, mistakes can be costly. When manually inputting inventory data, recording quantities, item numbers or locations using just pen and paper, errors are likely. The worker who handwrites this information would then hand this over to another employee who would then have to interpret the handwriting, and it’s easy to misinterpret what we see written down.

Additionally, if this information is then recorded into a computer, this is another avenue for errors to crop up as someone accidentally enters the wrong numbers. On average, there is one error in every 300 keystrokes, compared to just one in every three million when using a machine such as a barcode scanner.

Possibilities with Supply Chain Automation

Reduce Fulfilment Errors
Making consistent fulfilment errors, failing to streamline the shipping process and not reducing warehouse costs can waste both time and money. Each incorrect data entry can create an incorrectly fulfilled order, and this, in turn, can cause a company to rapidly lose money, especially if that business is still manually tracking inventory. This can result in chargebacks and returns, not to mention damage to your company’s reputation with customers, the very backbone of your business operations.

With an automated process, such as a barcode data collection system, a business can avoid processing errors and incorrect shipments with their perfect data capture capabilities. By automating error-prone steps, you can increase process efficiency.
Increased Customer Satisfaction

The process of a customer ordering a product goes through a specific supply chain journey. But there is plenty that can go wrong or be delayed. A human worker would need to receive a customer’s order, find that product, pick it up and transfer it to be shipped out. With automation, these tedious steps can be eliminated in a number of ways. Amazon currently utilises packing robots that traverse their warehouses to find the correct items and then brings them on a shelf to a human worker at a packing station, eliminating needless time spent searching and transporting goods.

By automating and improving the supply chain processes, you create more efficient and streamlined delivery of goods to customers. Customers who receive a positive experience from a company are more likely to do business with them again in the future, leave a positive review or recommend them to friends and family. All of this has the knock-on effect of bringing in more business, benefitting the bottom line.
Reduce Overstock

The supply chain needs to keep on top of inventory control, so stock spends less time on the racks and is frequently replaced to prevent overstock. By tracking inventory levels in real-time, managers can better plan for future orders and reduce rack space that is reserved for overstock, which can free up capital and then be re-invested elsewhere.

By using automated data collection that can capture instant information about the internal warehouse processes, stock storage can be optimised to make processes more efficient and cost-effective.

Utilise Data Collection
Aside from the accuracy of automated data collection and eliminating the possibility of human error from manual data entry, having access to all the data automation brings can put your business in a much stronger position.

Data is a powerful tool; it can be used to make data sets that track all manner of data fields. This information can be used to make data-driven decisions to benefit the business overall by eliminating unnecessary spending or streamlining a process by recognising redundant steps. Better still, data collection can be adapted and altered over time, so companies can change what data they collect based on shifting markets, growth, or to adjust focus.

As robotics become more affordable and are fine-tuned to meet the needs of the supply chain, their usage is likely to spread like wildfire. The technology should be embraced, and successful businesses will be those able and willing to adapt to these changes in production and distribution, with the desire to take advantage of all that automated technology can bring.

This article was written by Graham McCarthy from GSM Barcoding a leader in stock and asset software, custom label and print solutions.

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